Uncomfortable Blessings

When I give a talk I prefer to build up to a Big Reveal. This time I will tell it to you up front, then go back and explain what I mean and why it’s important and what you should do about it. Here goes: Since the start of ECS I believe that no one has learned more than me. I have reasons for this claim and, if it’s true, I also believe that no one has been more blessed than me either. Of course, I’m happy to share, the blessings and a bit of the story.

On a spring afternoon seven years ago my wife wanted to talk. She had just finished a marathon math lesson with our oldest daughter, who was in third grade at the time and whom we were homeschooling. Math was a sore spot in those days; things just weren’t adding up, if you know what I mean. But math was merely part of the problem, and there was no answer key. Both Mo and I were coming to realize how big an education we wanted for our kids and we were detecting a mismatch between that vision and our capacity to give it. I had attended public school, Mo had been homeschooled, and I was excited for her to homeschool our kids. I thought I was a pretty impressive husband for how supportive I was of her work.

But that discussion on that afternoon was less like realizing that we needed to upsize to a mini-van and more like realizing that we needed to get a 747, and that we were going to have to build one with instructions ordered from the back pages of a Popular Mechanics magazine. While we talked about a few options, she finally said, “Look, Sean, you are going to need to be exhausted educating our kids, so you better figure out the best way to do it.” That is a haunting, prophetic exhortation, and I wouldn’t be giving this talk without it.

One of the options we discussed was trying to convince some other crazy families to start a classical Christian school. But since all she and I had done at that point was read about those elusive creatures called classical schools, we decided it might be good to get some experience at one of them to see the theory running around in plaid skirts. We enrolled our kids at Providence Classical Christian School, located in Lynnwood at the time, a 40 minute drive one way without traffic. Maggie entered in 4th grade, Cal started Kindergarten, and we knew within a week that we found the good wine, like the kind Jesus made.

Around the same time we bought a three-ring binder from the Association of Classical and Christian Schools on how to start a school. Ha! Jonathan was excited about the possibility, as were a few other people that were at least willing to indulge the dream. We started reading, a lot. We talked, a lot, about truth and goodness and what is beauty and why bother. We wrote a vision document and statement of beliefs, chose a name, a mascot, and a motto. It took us another five years to get the mission chiseled into one sentence. It’s easy to blather and hard to summarize for that elusive elevator chat. It’s even harder to get off that elevator and do something.

While we loved homeschooling, and we loved PCCS, we wanted more people to have access to this worldview-ing in the Marysville area. One option we discussed, and I’m not joking, was to buy a bus and commute en masse to Lynnwood every morning and afternoon. Instead, we started with twelve students, K-10th, in a farmhouse basement in the fall of 2012.

Initially, I thought I was going to be exhausted telling students all the things I knew. I mean, I was an involved parent, pastor, board member, teacher of Latin, and reader of school-starter notebooks. Turns out, I was exhausted trying to figure out all the things I didn’t know. I had to learn what sort of scissors exercises help penmanship in the pre-polly stage and why cursive handwriting is better than printing. I needed a better answer for Why Latin? than that “it’s classical,” and hard. How old should someone be to start Kindergarten? Why are school desks actually a thing? What do you do when you don’t have lockers or desks or your own space to leave things so that 8 year-olds are carrying 30 pound backpacks around? What sorts of character do we want our graduates to have?

Sheesh. That doesn’t include trying to read and learn from the books and history that I didn’t pay attention to when I was a student. I’m part of a group of auditors that will finish the 6th and final year of Omnibus in a few weeks. We’ve done Hammurabi, Homer, Herodotus, Hitler, Hobbes, Hemingway, and Huxley, and that’s just one letter of the alphabet. I had a master’s degree with almost no mastery of economics and politics. Or fiction. We had to start a fiction festival just so I could do my penance to generations of librarians and literature teachers.

How do you know when it’s too much lazy complaining about homework, or that it’s actually too much homework? What is the maximum student load for a class? What if you have five more students than that number, but you don’t have that money to pay another teacher?

How do you encourage teachers who are exhausted and trying to figure out the best way to love and teach their students, but also enable them to have a life for serving their own spouse and kids?

These are all great questions. Weighty questions. Pressing questions. Exhausting questions. And, would we really want it any other way? This is our place, and it is the place where God grows us.

If you listen to professional educators, and especially education lobbyists, they’ll rant on repeat that the system needs more money. Let’s raise a levy. Get more government grants. But, many schools have gotten more money and not gotten more smart. Maybe some day God will give us such an overfunded budget that we don’t know what to do with it, but money never made a mental muscle. No check ever created hunger to learn. Gifts may be sweet, but they don’t increase strength.

The feast we’re enjoying is festive because of vision of something great and many sacrificial labors to deal with the difficulties of getting to that vision. It’s true of this barn, of this meal, and of our school. Those for whom it is the tastiest are those who have given themselves to the voluntary work of being uncomfortable.

We’ve hired full-time and part-time men and women who will and do give their lives for their students, not because they know it all, but because they hate that they don’t. They’re not education experts, they’re education desperates.

This is not a bug, it’s a feature. While we are giving our kids an education that we didn’t get, we are giving them an example of being exhausted toward something that’s worth it. This isn’t because these are the only people we could find, it’s because it’s the kind of people we want to graduate.

The best work doesn’t need to get stuck in the founders generation, the ones who walk from cup of coffee to cup of coffee. The goal isn’t getting established, with enough faculty and facility and funds. The goal is not getting settled, and having a faculty and facility and funds that get us into new uncomfortable positions. The fundraising feast is not about meeting our current needs. It’s to make it so that we have more needs and bigger needs.

The very first assembly message I gave was about how wise people change their mind, regularly. Either you know it all at the beginning, or you stay in your bunker, or you have to learn.

Little did I know how little I knew, or how costly and painful it would be to learn. I’ve learned more than anyone because I had more than anyone to learn. But thanks be to God who delivers us from sin and ignorance, who gives us freedom in Christ to learn about, and love, all that Christ claims as His. Thank God for kids who love it. Maggie told me this is one of her favorite nights of the year; I wouldn’t have imagined. Thank God for teachers who keep growing, for a school community that keeps singing more loudly and harmoniously.

Many of you feast on similar blessing already (even if mine is bigger!). Others of you could join. It is costly. It takes time, repentance, even money. But as Paul told the Philippians, he didn’t want their financial gift for himself, but “the fruit that increases to your credit.” To train a generation of those who will give (produce, create) rather than take (consume), we must show them what it looks like to have skin in the game, which means we’ve got to roll up our sleeves.

So thanks for enjoying some of the labored for fruit with us. Consider giving, not so that we can be more comfortable and get out of work, but rather so that we can get more people to enjoy the work of learning, and all its blessings.


These are the notes from my talk at last Friday’s Fundraising Feast. –Mr. Higgins

Reverse Mimesis


Reverse Mimesis
2018 Fiction Festival

 
 
00:00 / 53:46
 
1X
 

Better Than Unbreakable

I recently read a brilliant illustration. Imagine you wanted to send a priceless wine glass to a friend through the mail. You would find a reinforced box and wrap the glass with thick layers of soft padding. You would double-tape the box and, before sending it, you’d write in all-caps with a fat red Sharpie on multiple sides, “FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE.” The glass is valuable but easily breakable.

What is the opposite of that? As the author of the book observes, and I admit that it was what first came into my mind, most people think the opposite of the wine glass is something such as a hard cover book. Wrap it in a tough box or wrap it with tissue paper, it probably won’t matter. Will the post office be careful with the package? Also, it doesn’t matter. A book can survive a lot and isn’t likely to be busted.

Between the two, which type of student would we want most? Our sixth year Omnibus (a History/Lit/Theology combo) class finished Moby Dick a few weeks ago. I audit the class but am behind in my reading, so I more recently came across this exhortation from Ishmael about halfway through the story; it’s about the benefits of being like a whale.

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own. (Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick: or, The Whale (pp. 334-335). Penguin Publishing Group)

I like that: an internal temperature of one’s own no matter the season. But, this is not actually the opposite of the wine glass. The book is sturdy, (and, as Melville argues, a whale is self-controlled), and that is good, but sturdy is not the opposite of fragile. The opposite of easily breakable would be some substance or some product that not only survives, it gets better being knocked around. Imagine writing on the outside of the box: “MISHANDLE LIKE NOBODY’S BUSINESS!” By the time the package arrived, having been thrown against walls and dropped on the floor and kicked out of the truck, the contents have gained value, not lost it. This is more than robust, this is antifragile (which is the name of the book I’m reading).

The principle applies to many domains: economies, governments, science, health, as well as education and individual persons/students. A number of things benefit from some stress, from some tension, from some difficulty. This affects what kind of persons we want to be. It affects what kind of persons we want our students to become.

Our society is doing a great job at making fragile persons, including Generation Snowflake that needs puppy petting therapy rooms in order to recover from hearing a new idea, especially one that challenges long-held but shallow-rooted assumptions. Written on the side of our schools: “Fragile: Don’t touch.”

It doesn’t need to be that way.

My wife regularly says, though she doesn’t claim to have come up with it, that we ought to be preparing our kids for the road and not preparing the road for our kids. Parents want their kids to do well, to succeed, to pass them. But this doesn’t happen by making everything smooth and easy. Our kids will succeed not when we’ve put enough padding around them that they “survive.” Besides, we can actually do better than making them sturdy. What if we trained them in such a way that when the world throws crazy things at them they thrive?

This is our mission at ECS. The school board finalized our mission statement last summer.

We commend the works of the Lord to another generation with the tools of classical education, weaponized laughter, and sacrificial labors so that they will carry and advance Christ-honoring culture.

This is a battle. It requires wisdom to really see a culture, it requires strength to carry a culture, it requires wisdom and strength and courage and hope to advance a culture.

The world is certainly offering her alternative to a Christ-honoring culture. The chaos and the volatility that come with denying the Lordship of Christ is bad, but, for the right kind of person, such chaos is the perfect opportunity. The culture of unbelief is hostile, but it is also self-defeating. It can’t stand on its own; it has to borrow any truth it depends on. Our students are being equipped not merely to withstand the attack, but to take advantage of every weakness in the system and tip it over.

Such training requires a variety of things, including the “tools of classical education.” This is an old pedagogy, with a Dorothy Sayers twist that emphasizes certain parts of training with certain ages of development. There are three categories of these tools considered under the heading of the Trivium (one of the things that goes into the Classical school difference): Grammar, Dialectic/Logic, and Rhetoric.

Antifragile students know their facts. They know that there are only three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. They live in a world of “he”s and “she”s and “it”s. What an advantage to distinguish male and female and not only when choosing a restroom or hooking up a sound system. They know that two plus two equals four, all the time, because God made it that way. Our youngest students sing about the Bible and about the catechism and about the parts of speech because they love to sing and because they don’t have any doubt about God’s good gifts in creation. This is the Grammar stage.

Antifragile students test their arguments as well as the advertising propaganda shot at them. They know that syllogisms can be valid, but not sound, yet we’re looking for both. They live in a world of good, better, and best, and are learning to distinguish which is which according to created categories and according to the standard of God’s Word. This is the Logic stage.

Antifragile students express their ideas. They’ve assembled truth and assessed what is good and they prepare to adorn their persuasions. They are polishing their prose, poetry, and presentations. “Rhetoric is the class that’s trying to turn [a student] into a leader” (Rebekah Merkle, Classical Me, Classical Thee). This is the Rhetoric stage.

We train students in the grammar stage to be curious, to love to collect and chant (HIC HAEC HOC!). We train students in the logic stage to be (a good sort of) contrarian, to love to correct and question. And we train students in the rhetoric stage to be creative, to love producing and shaping not just consuming and being shaped.

All of these things together work toward making courageous, Christ-loving, Christ-honoring students. We need young men and women who can choose well and advance at crosswords we as parents and teachers can’t currently see. We’re working to equip students who get stronger by figuring things out, with a deadline, with others depending on them.

I love C.S. Lewis’ quote about how favorable conditions never come. “The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.” We want students who want unfavorable conditions anyway. It’s not inconsequential that it was Bard (a synonym for poet) the Bowman who shot down the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit, and it’s not just coincidence that the only time Smaug’s weak spot showed is when he was flying and attacking.

At ECS we are laboring, with laughter, to produce a certain kind of antifragile person who is “impossible to sneak up on” (Merkle), who is part of a community of those who not only are not easily broken, but who relish the opportunities to build in a broken world.


These notes are from my talk at the 2018 Information Night.

The Gravity of Glad Sacrifices

The following notes are from the address Mr. Higgins gave at the recent Fundraising Feast.


Oxford defines gravity as “the force that attracts a body towards the centre of the earth, or towards any other physical body having mass.” Isaac Newton calculated the movements of planets based on their masses and the distance between their centers. Albert Einstein argued his theory of general relativity that the curvature of spacetime accounts for the direction and momentum of free-falling objects. Scientists have measured gravity grasping objects toward the center of the earth at a rate of 9.8 meters per second squared. These all involve observations and formulas and theories, and maybe a stopwatch, but none of them demonstrate what gravity does better than dropping a bowling ball out of a three story window.

Evangel Classical School is not large but, by God’s grace, we have a little bit of gravitational attraction. This isn’t scientific or philosophical speculation, it is something that can be seen. It is also a reason to give thanks to God and something to ask God to bless even more.

The journal app I use recently showed me an “On This Day” entry from four days before our school’s first Information Night in April of 2012. I had written the following:

With just a few days to go before the announcement meeting for ECS, a fall start with our current plans seems less likely than ever. There are only a few families who seem excited about the idea, and even fewer who seem committed to the work it requires.

Five years later ECS has almost 60 students, a modest number for sure, yet that is close to a 500% increase from the 12 we had day one, and it’s manifestly more than none. We have a headmaster, three full-time teachers, and a troop of part-timers. We have textbooks and literature books and hula-hoops and footballs and tables and chairs and whiteboards as well, but those things are only as weighty as the people who wield them. Our people give the school gravity, and the gravity is growing.

There are other words for it, too: energy, buzz, traction, momentum. But I prefer the image of gravity, where mass and energy become an attractive force.

You’ve seen it at work before. Some individuals have a personal gravity; they can’t help but draw a crowd. Organizations can have gravity. There is a kind of pull that not only works to increase the numbers, it also works to change the attitude of the group itself.

In one of my classes this year I noticed a crippling lack of interest and effort from most of the students. Teaching felt like sweeping water uphill with a broom without bristles. But more than a month ago one of the students started to work. Her parents had come alongside of her and encouraged her, and she took to it. In just a couple days of class, her eager participation and obvious effort turned the tone of the entire class around. She didn’t stand up on her chair and exhort the other students to get with it. As far as I know she didn’t track them down between classes and threaten them if they didn’t work harder. She changed the culture of the classroom by her happy diligence. That’s gravity.

The whole school has a type of gravity to it. Not everyone is won by the gravity, but many are.

We start every morning of school at school with Matins. We say the Pledge of Allegiance, we say the Apostles’ Creed, and we sing a song from the Cantus. I’ve found it almost impossible to get through the entire 5-7 minute mini-meeting and keep a good grip on my grumpiness. I’m reminded that I’m a part of a group of 70ish people—students and staff and some of the parents who are still around at that point—who are committed to loving our neighbors as we express our belief in and love for God. Mr. Sarr is always ready to lead us joyfully, and that joy of being together and getting ready to work for the Lord pulls us further up and further in. That’s gravity.

It is a question we ask when considering whether or not to accept a new student. If the student (and his family) are not quite aligned with us, but still interested, do we have enough gravity to pull them in, or will they knock us off track?

We’ve seen a phenomenon with our end of year evaluation tests. We give spelling tests that include words a grade level or two above where the students are to see if they can take their understanding of phonograms and other rules they’ve learned to make educated guesses. There are two types of students: those who get upset, if not break down in tears, because they don’t know, and those who know that they don’t know but are totally up for the challenge. The ones who are up for the challenge—which is different than knowing how to spell everything correctly—are consistently the students who’ve been at ECS for more than a year, who’ve seen others around them joyfully trying things they might not succeed at. That’s gravity.

What is it that causes this kind of cultural gravity to grow? What is happening at ECS that God is blessing?

Jesus told His disciples, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32), which was a reference to the kind of death he was going to die (verse 33). The cross was the purchase point of salvation, it is also the sun around which the eternal life of every believer revolves. And the author of Hebrews said about Jesus, “for the joy that was set before him [He] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). His life wasn’t taken, He spent it without resentment. I think we could summarize the principle as follows: by God’s grace there is great gravity around glad sacrifice.

Both the glad and the sacrifice are required. Gladness without sacrifice may still be gladness, but it will probably be light. Dandelion seeds are playful in the breeze, but not much of a draw. Sacrifice without gladness may still have an effect, but it’s demanding, or done with a heavy stink. This is the Thanksgiving hostess terrorist, holding her guests hostage until they see and acknowledge all the work she did. Who wants to be around that? Who can sustain sacrifices like that? None is attracted to this, no, not one.

Glad sacrifices are a product and picture of the gospel, this is the Evangel.

We pray for God’s Spirit to make us glad in giving up our lives and He has given great grace for this so far. Mr. Sarr sets the mead hall tone that makes Grendel’s mom mad, the Board is on board the joy train, the teachers embody the war of laughter day by day, especially those on the “Full Time Team.” Mr. Bowers makes science lovers in one hour a week because he loves biomes (and everything else in creation). Mrs. Hall never walks a lap around the parking lot—and she makes a lot of laps—alone. Mrs. Bowers collects kindergartners around her desk and contrarians around her discussion. Because we live in the world God made, the world God loved so much that He gave His Son for, those who make glad sacrifices can’t help but draw others in. It doesn’t draw everyone in, but it is picking up size and speed.

You can be part of it. You can gladly sacrifice with us and make the ECS gravity a pull to Marysville: from some who are already in it, for some to come to it. You can gladly sacrifice your words, telling others about the school. No Facebook boosted post can do what you can. You can gladly sacrifice your minutes, coming in to volunteer in a variety of ways, using your gifts to serve the students. You can gladly sacrifice your dollars.

We hope to add 18 students to our total number for next year. This would enable us to hire (and pay) another full-time teacher. Why not two more, or three? The people are the most important piece of the gravity, but how great would it also be to have a playground, a field, facilities that show off what we’re doing? We can’t do that yet, and that’s fine, but you could help us get to a spot where others want in. That’s gravity that comes from glad sacrifice.

If it seems too smug to talk about our not-quite-five-year old gravity status, as if we’re the Pluto of wanna-be planets, I’d say these things. First, we’re not too smug to quit working. In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton wrote,

[T]he old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

We know we must excel still more in laughing and laboring. Second, we’re not too smug to invite others such as yourselves to join us or to ask you to help. That’s part of why we’re here tonight.

And third, we’re not too smug to feast in thanks to God. That’s the other reason for this evening.

Great gravity sustained through generations won’t happen without God’s blessing, and it will be God’s blessing, proportional to our glad sacrifices.

The Nuts and Bolts of Education

These are notes from my talk about the Trivium at last week’s Information Night.


One of the best things about the daily nuts and bolts at our school is that we have separate bathrooms for boys and girls. I don’t start this way to get a laugh or to cause a shock. Gender specific facilities are important for modesty—though that’s not my primary reason for mentioning it. They are important for morality—though sin doesn’t depend on any given door being closed.

I bring up the distinction between male and female because we cannot have true learning or lasting culture without it.

Of course we couldn’t have following generations without male and female because humanity requires sexes in order to reproduce. Efforts to deny observable biology are efforts that destroy not only individuals, but also the future where any individuals could exist.

But I bring up male and female because God created and identified us that way.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26–27, ESV)

This means that part of bearing God’s image is being social, a reflection of the “us” and “our” in verse 26. We are made in the likeness of the Triune God. This also means that both males and females are equally image-bearers. They are different, so they receive different names and different responsibilities, but neither man or woman is more like God than the other.

It also assumes that our image-bearing relations and image-bearing responsibilities require us to acknowledge what God has made and what God has said. Boys and girls share some things yet they do not share all things, nor are they interchangeable. To deny or even to confuse this truth is to deny or confuse any possible foundation for learning.

After the poetic, lyrical celebration of male and female in Genesis 1:27 (if our culture succeeds at obliterating the distinction, what kind of songs will we be left with?), God gave a mandate.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28, ESV)

We must must receive the definitions and boundaries created by God. What are animals? What kinds are there? What are we supposed to do with them? What is dominion? What can we subdue? What are we going to eat (see verse 29)? These are necessary questions, but if we won’t accept the created realities of male and female, realities that are self-evident and Spirit-revealed, how can we be trusted with anything?

A classical Christian education begins with basic facts like these. It is called the Grammar stage of the Trivium (which means “three ways”), and it acknowledges that every subject of study has created realities or historical realities or revealed realities. We are not trying to rewrite or redefine. We’re receiving what God has made, what God has done, what God has said.

Birds and fish and bugs, planets, and plants are all different, as are the letters and phonograms of the alphabet. Numbers classify and quantify objects and ideas, narratives show truth in a different way. These are particulars to be acquired.

The school board is reading a book by Gresham Machen, Education Christianity and the State, and he lamented that so many school systems (in 1925!) want kids to be thinkers but the teachers don’t give them anything to think about. “It is impossible to think with an empty mind” (p 7). No facts and no figures because they aren’t fun. There is no est, only non est.

[Such a student can] not succeed in unifying his world for the simple reason that he has no world to unify. He has not acquired a knowledge of a sufficient number of facts in order even to learn the method of putting facts together. (p 4)

New things are collected all the time at every stage, but collection is the special focus of our Grammar School. The youngest students delight to soak in dates and names and conjugations by song and chant and sound-off and reading. They learn about the sun and moon, right and left, right and wrong–in math and morals. They are taught definitions about masculine and feminine, without which they cannot decline any Latin nouns.

The second stage is the Dialectic or Logic stage. The emphasis during these years, roughly corresponding to Junior High, is less on collection and more on categorizing, less on soaking in and more on sorting out. Students are taught formal logic, learning what constitutes an argument, what is valid, what is sound, and what is empty or false.

In her essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Dorothy Sayers tipped her hand:

It will, doubtless, be objected that to encourage young persons at the Pert age to browbeat, correct, and argue with their elders will render them perfectly intolerable. My answer is that children of that age are intolerable anyhow; and that their natural argumentativeness may just as well be canalized to good purpose as allowed to run away into the sands.

During this time students are systematically exposed to various ideas and worldviews, especially through the classical works of ancient, medieval, and even some modern literature. They’re learning to see what fits and what is false. They are able not only to distinguish between male and female but also to develop convictions about it.

The third stage is known as the Rhetoric stage. While students are always answering or writing or performing, the emphasis of this stage happens in the last few years of high school. Students learn things to think, how to think things through, and then how to express their thoughts in speeches and papers.

This is a time not just to know the truth or to defend the truth but to adorn the truth. Even as male and female, men and women ought to be adorned differently. We not only recognize a difference between genders for sake of bathrooms and uniforms, but even in what we want them to become. Both our young women and our young men should be well educated, both bearing the glory of God’s image, and both expressing things that the other can’t and shouldn’t even try to do.

The classical model values the Trivium as scaffolding for the building. The blueprint itself comes from God’s Word. He has said, He has given, He has created, so we give thanks and receive and study and steward. The Trivium helps teachers cut with the grain as students are generally suited to soak in and sort out and speak up as they mature.

  • Grammar – learn the good; know and enjoy things (res) as they are. Collect and comprehend.
  • Logic – identify and distinguish the good from the bad; account for things, put things together. Consolidate and cultivate convictions.
  • Rhetoric – fight for and persuade others to love the good. Consecrate ourselves, our talents and knowledge for letting our light shine before others so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven.

Google may be able to marshal facts, but it can’t train a student in logic or rhetoric. Without grammar logic falls and rhetoric is vacant. We’re educating our students with all three.

We start by acknowledging Christ as Lord and Savior, and then acknowledging our identity and created definitions by God. Otherwise learning collapses in a heap of inconsistent relativities and society ceases because no one even knows what male and female are, let alone which bathroom they should use.

Mr. Higgins

Making a Contribution

I gave the following address at our Convocation on the first day of school.


I had a roommate in college who loved to play SimCity. Even though I’ve never been a huge video game sort of guy, he let me play every so often and it was strangely fascinating. At that time, SimCity was a fairly new game without the niche variations available today.

“Sim” in SimCity stands for “simulation.” It means to imitate or make a computer model of something. The goal of the game is to build a thriving city, keeping digital citizens happy and maintaining a stable budget. You, as mayor, start with a given amount of capital and you choose where and what to build. You need transportation (roads, railroads, airports), power companies, stores, schools, and homes for all the people. As the population grows, you also need an adequate amount of police stations and hospitals to keep people safe and healthy. Even in the two-dimensional world, without the complexities of personalities, it gave a bit of appreciate for the challenges of setting up a society.

screenshot

Unlike SimCity we live in the world where your thumb hurts if you hit it with a hammer, not because you smashed the controller buttons too many times. Here there are life and death consequences without a reset or reboot. Even more unlike SimCity, we are not the architects of humanity, we’re not city mayors or presidents, and certainly we are not God. We do not get to make all the decisions even if we thought we knew all the ways to guarantee a glorious future.

However, even though we don’t get to be the boss, we are all called to build. We don’t get to start with a full back account and open fields, but we do get to invent and design and fix and remodel and renovate. We are cultural construction workers. We’re not building in order to make it nice for Jesus when He returns. We’re building because this is what Jesus made us to do.

As we start our fourth year of Evangel Classical School, I want to remind us who we are, what we’re trying to do, what we’re up against, and why we work hard with humility and laughter.

You are the imago Dei, the image of God. Each one of you, students, parents, and teachers are mirrors of God Himself. God revealed our reflective nature in the story of creation. According to Genesis 1 He made a world for men and then He made men to be makers in the world. Dorothy Sayers wrote the following in her book, The Mind of the Maker:

[W]hen we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, “God created.” The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.

The reason you color, cut and paste, write and paint, sing and dance, is because the creative impulse beats in your chest. At some point drawings are not only art for the front of the refrigerator, they become blueprints for better refrigerators. You cut paper made from trees and later you cut trees to make paper. You sing tenor in the school choir and then someday you give your report on the city council; both are better when you contribute your part.

God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and take dominion. What He had made was great and yet He wanted them to make more great things. God made little makers with minds and hands. You bear God’s creative glory as you create.

ECS exists to equip and encourage culture creators, or at least culture contributors. It takes faith to see how a kindergartner chanting phonogram jingles could one day write a novel that shapes the thinking of generations better than Virgil’s Aeneid. But phonemes become graphemes via penmanship which turns into published books. You will learn names and dates and places, not only so that you can rule at Trivial Pursuit (which you could), or even so that you can be thankful for the good foundation we stand on (which you should), but also so that you would want to do your part in these days in this place.

Not only can we honor Christ in our work, we must work if we want to honor Him. We’re made to make.

Again, we don’t reign on earth as sovereign kings and queens, but we are poets and plumbers and pilots and parents. We do flavor and preserve and influence and shape the world. If you want to be a Christian doctor or nurse, we want you to know the skeletal, muscular, nervous, sensory, reproductive, digestive, circulatory, immune, respiratory, and endocrine systems. We also want you to know in your bones that God loves life. If you want to be a Christian lawyer–and why wouldn’t you?–we want you to know the true law, to love righteousness and hate evil. If you want to start a business or write books or build buildings, then believe that God is pleased with those who do such culture construction.

It is true, however, that all image-bearers are also the bearers of bad news. We are all mirrors of God’s glory, but we are also all broken mirrors due to sin. Sin is what ruins our plans and spoils our relationships. You will, at some point, prefer laziness to labor. You will choose to be angry with a classmate who disagrees with you, or a teacher who corrects you, rather than serve or learn. You will seek to grab rather than contribute. This happens because of sin. The reason the world is so messed up is because of sin.

But we have a Savior. It is of first importance that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. This is the evangel. He saves us and is sanctifying us to be like Him, which includes enjoying and using all the things He has made. Math? He created the problems. Logic? He is the Logos. Poetry? His invented language and lovers and flowers and rhyme and rhythm. Biology, history, Engrade, recess soccer? He is Lord over them all.

One more thing. ECS is a training ground for cultural contributors. You will (hopefully) bear much fruit after you graduate. But you are also creating now. Working hard is never wasted. Loving one another now is loving one another. Confessing rather than covering sin is building, not destroying. The stakes are high, the Savior is great, the new school year is here. It’s not a simulation game. Let’s get to work.

More Fruitful Than Treebeard

I gave the following address at our year-end assembly last Friday.


If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, you no doubt remember Treebeard. He’s a great character, helpful, slow to decide and to speak and to move, but full of conviction. He also offered tasty things to drink to guests. I’m sure his beard was quite a beauty (it was part of his name after all) and have tried to model my beard accordingly.

Treebeard lived in another world but some seeds of his kind have been brought into ours. I’ve seen some of the seeds. I’ve even seen some of the saplings, though I’ve only seen a few full-grown trees. They aren’t exactly ents, but they are descend-ents. A few of these trees live in the woods though most are city dwellers. Unlike ents, these trees put down roots to stay. They don’t have mouths but they talk. Their branches don’t move but they go all over the place.

With the right care, over time the trees grow and their branches wind through the windows and doors of whatever building they’re near. Eventually the limbs will lengthen throughout a whole house, winding through hallways and up stairs and elbowing themselves into every room. You can try to trace the tributaries back to the trunk, but you can’t really tell the twists apart, nor, strangely, do you really want to. Rather than upset the owner or cause him to think that it’s time to prune the tree, the growth of the tree makes him happy. When the boughs get bigger it doesn’t squeeze the space, it actually seems to make everything bigger. The one’s I’ve seen have been quite magical.

In the kitchen, the branches grow pomicultural pleasures. You can see reds, yellows, oranges. You can taste sweet like grapes, sour like lemons, and salty like tomatoes. The fruit can be squeezed into so many juices and baked into so many pies and sliced over so many bowls of cereal. Whether breakfast or dinner or snacks, the tree gladly shares its yield and makes the table a place of laughter and satisfaction.

In the family room, the tree blooms into many flowers with a medley of shapes, sizes, and smells. It’s an indoor garden, with scents that remind you of lavender and lilac but different. Your nose makes you think of rain on dirt, but somehow clean. It seems almost every day as if there are new subjects for entertainments, a new eyeful to see and study. Visitors and family alike enjoy the show.

In the bedrooms, the tree makes the most comfortable resting places. Sons and daughters have their own spots, soft like futons of feathers, with full-body leaf blankets that breathe for crispy-cool summer nights and warm on the wintry ones.

Of course, outside the house the tree springs to the sky; you feel like you can climb it into giant clouds. It also furnishes swank shade. The only tension under its care is in the hammock. Otherwise it’s a glass of lemonade, a novel, or a nap. The greatest parties are thrown under trees like these.

At this point I must confess that I’m so unskilled at thinking imaginatively that the story above is more of an illustration. I’m also so impatient of a fiction attempter that I feel the need to explain and encourage non-fiction style.

I have seen such trees, but we don’t call them trees. These trees are magical, though, maybe more accurately, they are supernatural. The seeds exist. Each one of you students have received this seed, but it is something inside of you that causes you to grow. You are the tree and your education as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ is the seed, the sunshine, the water. You are growing and your life branches out through all the house. As you leave these school walls for the summer, you will continue to grow and change every room you enter.

Your branches flower with Narnian colors. Your branches smell like Uncle Frank, Fat Frank the fairy, the Chestnut King, and Henry York’s baseball mitt. Your branches have walked with Pilgrim to the Celestial City and walked with Hitler into Moral Insanity. Your branches have attended to the principles of Independence and the perils of Revolution. When the breeze blows through your leaves it sounds like the song of Genesis through Joshua or man’s chief end. You’ve gotten moody about verbs and scrambled ham and eggs in Latin poetry. Your branches have sounded out phonograms, found 800 word essays on blank screens, chased levels of letters on a keyboard, read a book about How to Read a Book, and experienced a millions of dollars Music Project. These are great things that put Gatsby’s life to shame.

When you walk into the kitchen or sit down at the dinner table, you flavor family conversations. You tell stories and jokes and make observations and bring laughter all around. In the living room you play games and watch shows, but you add context that the Kratt brothers can’t. In your bedroom you go to sleep with dreams of great things. And outside you become a source of games and merrymaking. You aren’t the fussy or boring or bullying kid on your street. Others seek your driveway or front yard for protection and a party. Neighbors light up when you go out to play.

This is not a way to think about your life that is make-believe.

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
(Psalm 1:1–3, ESV)

So now is your summer break from school. But it is a season for you to continue to grow and flourish with more fruit than Treebeard.

A Political Act

1984A happy marriage is a political act. (Note: the adjective is key in the previous sentence.) George Orwell meant as much in his dystopian novel, 1984, which the Omnibus class has been reading the last couple weeks. The totalitarian State prohibited–to the degree that they could–passionate marriages and sexual pleasure. Orwell’s main characters couldn’t vote for change but they could defy Big Brother by their adultery.

Their motivation, however, was strictly rebellion. Just do what you’re not allowed do to to stick it to the Man. Then you’re truly free. But in opposing bondage to the State Winston and Julia chose another bondage, the bondage of sin. They could not liberate themselves by their defiance, let alone anyone else, less because the government was so powerful and more because they chose to believe a different set of entangling lies.

Their misunderstanding, and Orwell’s himself, doesn’t change that the committed life of one man with one woman and their honoring the marriage bed is indeed a political act. It makes a statement to both neighbors and the nation. Such union is an embodied claim that says the president and politicians and police do not have the authority to make or break marriage however they desire. A male and female in covenant one-fleshedness are enfleshing theology. Husband and wife, then father and mother, are God-instituted relationships for the glory of the human race. This is a political act in that it declares that God is God, not the state. God is the lawgiver and not the people themselves or the lobby groups or big donors or liberal judges sitting on courtroom benches.

God instituted marriage as an incarnational reflection of His own Trinitarian, eternal relations as well as an illustration of the union between His Son and His Son’s Bride, the Church. How we love our wives, respect our husbands, raise our children, none of these are invisible, let alone hopeless acts. Through them we pledge our allegiance to the Father and Son and Holy Spirit.

Thankfulness and the Trivium

The following remarks were presented at our recent Information Night for prospective families.


What is missing most in most education? For me, my public schooling was more like a week-old donut hole: bite-size, dry, and missing much of the context. I missed many great books, in part because I didn’t read what I was assigned and in part because significant others weren’t assigned. I missed a definition of revolution and how our war against the British wasn’t properly one. I missed logic–formal and in blue jeans. These are just samples. But what I missed most was teaching to thankfulness.

We learned things but we didn’t have anyone to thank. To be consistent with the materialistic, evolutionary worldview that drove what we did, learning shouldn’t have been fun, it was merely in order to survive and advance. But if God created all things and sustains them by His Word, then every page of every lesson and every fact on earth is a gift. That’s how to get kids excited. Unwrap the present that is parts of speech and scientific classification and counting by tens and A Tale of Two Cities and see the tag “From: God.”

This is the advantage of Christian education. The Christian God gives. More than blindfolding students from unrighteousness in the world, teachers at a Christian school work to open eyes to see God’s glory in the world. We give thanks for Christ and through Christ and to Christ. Not anything that was made was not made by Him. It’s all His. He rules it. He cares about it. He gives it to us to enjoy and use.

So Christian education is not only learning the Bible but also learning how to see all the things we have to be thankful for. (And perhaps learning how to not end sentences with prepositions. Or split infinitives.)

How do we get all of it in? We can’t. We’re finite. But what kid rejects a gift because it is too big for his hands? We try to get a hold of as much as we can, and the process we use at our school is the Trivium. Here is the advantage of classical education as it follows the “three ways.”

The Grammar stage is nonstop collecting, ubiquitous capture, building mental shelves and loading them. During the elementary years we teach the ABCs and 1+1s and Genesis one and Romans one and details about wars and who won. The students drink up as much as possible from the ocean of knowable things. But it tastes sweet because it’s gift for which we can be grateful. The 10 Commandments, Egyptian history, Latin declensions, math investigations, Narnia, these are all notes and lyrics and parts for our songs.

At this age, one readily…rejoices in the chanting of rhymes and the rumble and thunder of unintelligible polysyllables; one enjoys the mere accumulation of things. (Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning”)

For example, this year our grammar students in Bible class are learning a ten minute song from Genesis to Joshua that includes events and dates and Bible chapter for the six days of creation, the call of Abraham, Joseph as a slave in Egypt, the plagues, the Exodus, and the Ten Commandments. Our kindergarten students are learning a rhyming rap about counting by tens. Our second year Latin students are translating Green Eggs and Ham (or Virent Ova! Viret Perna!). This is a lot of work, but it is not burdensome because we receive it as good from God.

Next comes the Logic stage, a phase that trains for attentive assessment. We do not often think of a junior higher as distinguished, but we can help him to be a distinguisher. Students learn formal logic, a thing to be thankful for itself, as a way to spot lies in what the world says to be thankful for (i.e., personal autonomy) and what the world says not to be thankful for (i.e., God’s laws). Students take the store of information they’ve collected and dissect it, debate over it, and come to some conclusions about thankfulness.

It will, doubtless, be objected that to encourage young persons at the Pert age to browbeat, correct, and argue with their elders will render them perfectly intolerable. My answer is that children of that age are intolerable anyhow; and that their natural argumentativeness may just as well be canalized to good purpose as allowed to run away into the sands. (Sayers)

The Rhetoric stage is persuasive presentation, not learning to dress up like an insincere salesmen but rather learning to adorn the truth and win others to thankfulness for it. Not only can students avoid being manipulated by advertisers and media propaganda, they can articulate the truth better.

The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious
and adds persuasiveness to his lips.
(Proverbs 16:23)

This year our older students have read works such as Pilgrim’s Progress, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and others to see what rhetoric looks like driving down the road. We recently read The Communist Manifesto and observed how it argued for a worldview of envy, not thankfulness.

Is this classical approach to education (the Trivium) particularly Christian? It is when it runs on the energy of gratitude and to the goal of gratitude. That said, we acknowledge that unbelievers can and do learn and teach many things. We even know how that’s possible.

Common grace is what happens when God allows non-believers to participate in and enjoy that which could not be true if their view of the universe were true. Common grace is the blessing that results when God allows non-believers to be inconsistent. (Doug Wilson, Why Christian Kids Need a Christian Education)

Non-Christians can give thanks, but they can’t give thanks consistently. And Christians can only give thanks consistently because of the evangel (a great name for a school). The gospel frees us from discontent and opens our eyes to see God. We are thankful for open eyes, and we are thankful for all the things our now open eyes see that God has given.

Thankfulness keeps us sharp, always receiving (from God who doesn’t stop giving), always discerning (from the world who doesn’t stop lying, or from our own sin that keeps whining), and always declaring. Following the Trivium we learn how to keep learning, in particular, how to keep growing in our appreciation for truth, goodness, and beauty.

Classical Christian education isn’t a bore or a chore. It keeps kids interested because it’s all for them and shapes their loyalties to the Father of lights who gives every perfect gift. For that we can be thankful.

The Door

I gave the following address at our end-of-year assembly on June 5th.


This year Mr. Sarr, Mr. Bowers, and myself (on Thursdays) read for you 100 Cupboards and Dandelion Fire during lunch. The Chestnut King is next and I’m sure it’s first in the queue for lunch breaks next year. N.D. Wilson’s trilogy works wonders for the imagination and I wonder if any of you have tried out the cupboards at your house to see if they lead anywhere amazing.

Henry York discovered a route to other worlds by accident. Then he learned how to go where he wanted with the help of Grandfather’s journals. If he set both compass locks in his room to the right numbers, then the back of the cupboard in Grandfather’s bedroom opened to whole chapters of stories. Badon Hill. Byzantium. FitzFaeren. Endor. Beautiful places. Bad places. Places for battle. Places of roots.

The Chronicles of Narnia tap a similar other-worldly vein. To get to Narnia at first, Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy pressed through the back of a wardrobe. They couldn’t always get it to open. Sometimes the way was blocked. But Narnia held lifetimes of stories.

Wouldn’t you like to have one of these cupboards or closets in your house? Or at least know a friend who did? What if you didn’t have to wait for plaster to fall from the wall and find it by accident? What if you could go any and every time you wanted?

I am not asking these questions to tease you. I do want work up your hopes, but not in order to crush them. I’m not trying to trick you so that I can tell you to: “Grow up. Stop day-dreaming for make-believe places. Start living in the real world.” I am asking these questions because, if you’re interested, I might be able to help.

I’ve been doing some reading and I’ve been doing some looking around. I found the door. It’s here, at the school. If you want, I’ll tell you where it is and, if you want, you can go through it and spend your entire summer break in another world. You can live like Henry York Maccabee or Penelope or Anastasia or Uncle Frank or Aunt Dotty. Do you want to know which door it is?

It’s that one.1door

“Now wait a minute,” one of you says, “I’ve gone out that door over a hundred times this last year. That door leads to a concrete sidewalk and an asphalt parking lot.” You’re right. But maybe you’re not looking at it quite right.

The reality is that the greatest adventures are not the ones you choose but the ones that God writes for you. The best stories aren’t always the ones that shock you like sticking a paperclip in an electrical socket, but they will still put a charge into you. Will you see it? That’s the question.

G.K. Chesterton helps us to tumble our mental combination locks into the right place.

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered. (All Things Considered, 41)

This springs from an essay he wrote titled, “On Running after One’s Hat.” Men think that chasing their hat in the wind is a headache, a hassle, a bother. Why? Why not see it as a delightful and fun game? Why not join the game and play? Do you suppose that once you walk out that door, something (or someone) will be a bother to you at some point this summer? If yes, then you are ready for an adventure.

In another essay (“On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family”) Chesterton observes,

A man has control over many things in his life; he has control over enough things to be the hero of a novel. But if he had control over everything there would be so much hero that there would be no novel. (Heretics, 83)

The things are that out of our control make for the great stories. Gilbert argues that the most out-of-our-control elements, (so, according to him, the place where stories come alive), are found on our street, with our neighbors and with our family. Think about your family first.

When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we also step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which could do without us, into a world which we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family, we step into a fairy-tale. (82)

He also addresses why it is so much more exciting to live on our own streets then to take a trip to Timbuktu in search of adventure. Some men (and kids) want to travel, want to explore far-off places thinking that there they will find thrill and escape boredom. A boy such as that

says he is fleeing from his street because it’s dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting. It is exacting because it is alive. (78)

The real adventure is living with and interacting with the ones you can’t get away from. The stuff of stories is loving your neighbor, the ones out your own front door.

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor. (79)

God also makes your brother. And your sister. And your mom and dad. God will appoint each of you to backseats of cars or on benches around kitchen tables with beings who will live forever. That’s wild. There is a catch, though. You only have a short time to enjoy the ride.

You will go out that door and away from school for three months. What stories will you have to tell when you return? Epic love for those who weren’t kind to you? Heroic endurance of cleaning your room until every thumb’s width is organized? Poetic joy, a Tolkien like song about your faithfulness to obey your parents?

May God protect you and bless the pages of your summer chapter, raggants included.


  1. Any ol’ door will work. At this point in my address I pointed to our customary point of entrance and exit.